Friday, 13 February 2009

The Monkey On Your Back

When I had sent out a mail to all my friends and past colleagues on my departure from the company, one of the first replies I received was from Joergen, wishing me luck and gently enquiring whether I was planning to retire in Kerala. I smiled when I read that message; Joergen had always been fascinated by Kerala.

Joergen was my first expatriate boss and one of the best. A tall, handsome Dane with a balding pate, Joergen, when I first met him more than 25 years ago, must have been in his late thirties. An excellent manager, he had a highly-evolved sense of humour, which sometimes played itself out as dry wit or cutting sarcasm, depending on how you looked at it. While he could be extremely solicitous to the customers and utterly charming to the ladies, Joergen did not suffer fools easily and used to routinely destroy them with the sharp, rapier-like cuts of his delicately wicked sense of humour.

One day I walk into Joergen’s cabin with a problem which I thought was beyond my abilities to solve. I am a 26-year-old greenhorn, new to the complexities of sales management and am understandably nervous when I start blurting out my problem to him.

Joergen makes me sit and asks me to start all over again. He lights up a Marlboro (this was before the days of the “no smoking” offices) and listens to me attentively, interrupting me not even once. I finish my narration and wait expectantly for his reaction. But Joergen is silent. Leaning back in his chair, he is looking up at the ceiling and quietly blowing smoke rings. He seems to be in some kind of trance.

Impatient minutes tick by, as I sit and fidget in frustration.

“So what are you going to do about it, Rada?” asks Joergen, after a long time.

I don’t know. That is why I have come to him. I tell him so.

Joergen looks disappointed. He shakes his head sadly and tells me: “I do not want the monkey on your back.”

“Sorry?” I cannot comprehend what the man is talking about.

Joergen is kind but firm: “If you have a problem, chances are you are the best person with ideas how to solve it. So please think the problem through and come and discuss the possible solutions. I will help you choose and refine the right solution. But by trying to dump your problem on my lap, you are just transferring the monkey on your back to my back. Sorry, not interested.”

We together solved the problem in the next fifteen minutes.

Even today when young managers come to me for solutions to issues or problems they themselves have not thought through, I derive some mischievous satisfaction by asking them not to transfer their monkey to my back.

Thank you, Joergen!

Image Courtesy:


Vijay said...

Good one Rada...I guess the "monkey transfer" is the easy way out and hence popular...

Anonymous said...

would you believe that we have started doing this with our 6 year old? Its unbelievable how well it works and how big it makes a person feel - even if they are just 6:-)

Am expecting more frequent posts - now that you're a man of leisure:-)

gauri said...

Very nice post. And a good approach to problem-solving. It's how I've always dealt with my students (and now my kids) too. You help them a lot more when you teach them to hunt rather than feed them everyday.


Ravi said...

My current boss at IBM, is such a person. The value of a boss who gives you leeway to think things through and accepts the best decision that you make is invaluable. He just calls is "THINKING OUT OF THE BOX".

Same chain of though -different term :-)

Philip said...

The 'monkey on the back' concept is based on an Harvard Business Review article published about 30 years ago. It's one of the most popular HBR articles. Joergen must have been a very enlightened person to have kept up with developing methods of management (at that time this attitude to problem solving would have been pretty radical).

Renu said...

:) Nice. Yeah, I guess nothing like believing that "I am on my own"
And nice picture :)

Rada said...

@ Vijay: The problem is also with the bosses who tries to micro-manage...

@ Shalini: Catch them young, eh? And, what do you mean by man of leisure? I am busier than ever what with having to cope with fan mail from pretty young things! ;-)

@ Gauri: Absolutely. I can tell you the incident transformed me as a manager, for the better!

@ Ravi: While I agree with you, I am rather allergic to the term "out-of-the-box thinking", being a much hyped term in my previous company. :-)

@ Philip: Many years after the incident, I learned about this concept scientifically in an INSEAD management workshop. Indeed, Joergen was way ahead of his time in some respects...

@ Renu: I also rather liked the picture. Came upon it by sheer chance, I can tell you. :-)

Cynic in Wonderland said...

...reminds me of a boss i had who used to say - "YOUR task is to make me redundant so dont come here unless there is a crisis". worked well actually. learnt a hell of a lot that way

monkey on the bank transfer is the fave pastime of lotta people tho.

virgo48 said...

Remember the first meeting where Henrik and pele was also present. At the end of the meeting he asked us to turn the chair upside down. At the back of the seat there was a Ten rupess note stuck. He asked us to pick it up. He said the moral of the story, if you have to be successful in selling you have to get out of your rear and be in the field!!!!

Gypsy said...

:) Good one. Will keep this possible reply in mind when I try to whine my way out of something :P

Rada said...

Cynic: Must have been a very mature boss to say something like that!

@ Virgo: I remember the incident well. In fact, it was supposed to be the topic for a forthcoming blog post, but now you have come and spoiled it! Just kidding! Thanks for stopping by...

@ Gypsy: A visit to SS after such a long time! Thanks. Visit more often!

Padmaja said...

Wow! That seems like a great philosophy! Much needed by so many people I know!!

Maddy said...

Delhi 6 is all about the 'monkey on your back' - see it - I enjoyed the movie!!

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Stepping Sideways... by K. Radhakrishnan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.